Front cover of 'My Shanghai, 1942-1946' novel

My Shanghai, 1942-1946

It is 1942. Shanghai after Pearl Harbor. Newly-arrived Eiko Kishimoto, a 20-year-old, London-educated Japanese housewife, settles into a privileged existence in the French Concession as a member of the community of the Occupying Power. Initially, her days are filled with high society lunches and dinners, race course and night club visits and open-air summer concerts, amidst an ebullient and remarkably cosmopolitan society that makes up Shanghai.

But all is by no means what it seems. As war progresses, and Japan tightens its control within China, tensions mount, relationships unravel, and allegiances are questioned. It is not long before Eiko awakens to the meaning and implications of occupation for both her international friends and for Japanese civilians. Even her settled domestic life, with a growing family and close proximity to her beloved older sister, is threatened as Japan’s war efforts become more desperate and degenerate.

“A rare and sensitive look at Japanese civilians living in occupied Shanghai, and their fascinating interactions with an array of other peoples from German Nazis to Jewish refugees, American Quakers, and Chinese nationalists and collaborators alike. Itoh gives us not the familiar story of fanatical Japanese militarists, but of a cosmopolitan young woman who questions Japan’s ruinous war against China and the Western powers.”

- Sheldon Garon Nissan Professor of History, Princeton University

“Keiko Itoh gives us a riveting account of the Pacific War from an unusual--and unusually personal--perspective. There is so much vivid storytelling here: both the tangible, physical details of wartime Shanghai, and the shifting attitudes and loyalties of all the nationalities and personalities coexisting in that place and time.”

- Janice P. Nimura, author of Daughters of the Samurai: A Journey from East to West and Back

“One of the thrills of historical fiction is the sense of being somewhere else that is lost to time. In Keiko Itoh's My Shanghai we have arrived in that city, become witnesses to a vanished world as it passes by. Descriptions of dress, etiquette, street life, architecture, interiors, food and drink and weather and cityscapes are rendered with a painter’s eye. I constantly thought I was seeing the world of JG Ballard’s Empire of the Sun but from a totally different angle."

- Ashley Stokes, author of The Syllabus of Errors, Unthank Books, 2013


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Excerpts and Photo Images


All photos courtesy of the Virtual Shanghai Project, unless otherwise mentioned.

Thursday, 15 January 1942, Cathay Hotel, Shanghai

Is this uncontainable sense of liberation improper? But how could I not bask in my good fortune to be in this luxurious hotel, far away from stifling Japan – a country engulfed in a sense of moral superiority ever since Pearl Harbor.

Shortly, I will be dressing up and applying make-up to my heart’s content, in preparation for our second wedding anniversary dinner. It can’t be like the sad send-off party for Hiroshi-sama’s promotion and transfer to Shanghai, with little to eat and drink even though it was supposedly a celebration – austerity now a Japanese virtue, to feed the samurai spirit that will bring victory to Japan. No, I will be gliding into the grand Palace Hotel, just as I used to go to Claridge’s in my London debutante days, and will be seated in the glittering dining room as if in a Hollywood film.

Was our wedding only two years ago? How desperate I was to appear the perfect bride, trying to suppress my jittery nerves and discomfort, clad in a heavy silk bridal kimono, head weighed down by the wig and head-dress – quite an ordeal for a Western-educated bride unaccustomed to traditional Japanese ways, moving from London to Japan to marry the heir of an Osaka merchant house!...

Cathay Hotel
The Cathay Hotel, Shanghai
Eiko, the Debutante
Eiko, the Debutante (Photo: Daily Sketch, 1939)
Eiko, the Bride
Eiko, the Bride (Photo: Itoh family)

January 1942

...I enjoyed the stroll along the Bund, passing the Bank of China and then the Yokohama Specie Bank, Daddy’s bank, as we headed towards Garden Bridge – its double camelback steel structure looking particularly picturesque against the clear blue winter sky. We had to show our papers to Japanese sentries before crossing the Bridge, which surprised me somewhat, but in a way felt reassuring too, reminding me of passing London Bobbies on the street...

The Bund
The Bund
The Yokohama Specie Bank
The Yokohama Specie Bank
Garden Bridge
Garden Bridge

Having seen Hiro off to work, I ventured out for a walk, and the minute I stepped out of the tranquil lobby, I was struck by the bustle and noise. Lingering at the corner of the Bund and Nanking Road to get my bearings, I stood behind a couple of well-groomed Western gentlemen for protection. A coolie pulling his rickshaw nearly ran into a maimed beggar at the edge of the kerb, making me jump… I was approached by a couple of dirty street children, their thin, soiled arms reaching out at me. A shiver ran through my spine, and I’m ashamed to say, I turned around and fled back into the hotel...

Nanking Road
Nanking Road
Child Beggars
Child Beggars
Rickshaw Pullers
Rickshaw Pullers

...Mr Hsu caught sight of me panting back into the hotel. “Good afternoon, Madam. You have good, vigorous walk?” His friendly face made me blurt out, “Mr Hsu, the lions – the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank lions! They’re being removed to become scrap metal!” I noticed a quick astonished blink, but being the proprer professional, Mr Hsu simply cocked his head and said, “Madam, you been down Bund? Too many changes, difficult to keep up. Those lions, people rub feet bring good luck, and paws always gleaming shine,” he said with a smile, I think to cheer me up...

Hongkong Shanghai Bank
Hongkong Shanghai Bank
Patting lion’s paw for good luck
Patting lion’s paw for good luck (photo: HSBC)

Sunday, 8 March 1942, The Grosvenor House

Spring has arrived. It is particularly beautiful here in the French Concession, with the leaves of the plane trees just starting to unfurl… The flat, on Rue Cardinal Mercier, is diagonally across the street from the French Club, so easy for Hiro to pop over to the beautiful lawn tennis courts...

The Grosvenor House (photo: Koichi Itoh)
The Grosvenor House (photo: Koichi Itoh)
Cercle Sportif Francais, The French Club
Cercle Sportif Francais, The French Club

Sunday, 29 July 1945, The Embankment House

...It almost felt like being back home again, the Embankment House being similar, although not as elegant as the Grosvenor House. The large foyers and the lifts, the high ceilings, the modernity of the place brought back memories of my early days in Shanghai, filling me with optimism. How wonderful it would be, if the war ended, and we could have a normal life, with no Mr Tomita, in this comfortable place…Much to Chokugetsu-ken’s delight, Hongkew Market is nearby – a huge triangular, double storey concrete structure with a dark entrance covered in shade. I ventured there yesterday, even going upstairs, where the goods are cheaper for Chinese shoppers. The air was filled with smells of frying oil and garlic and a loud din, much livelier than downstairs, where most of the shoppers were Japanese – housewives in monpe and a sprinkling of soldiers on leave, their dark, focussed expressions giving me a sense of foreboding...

The Embankment House
The Embankment House
Hongkew Market
Hongkew Market

Wednesday, 15 August 1945

Everything is clear now – Japan has lost the war, an unconditional surrender…Only at night, did the reality of war’s end sink in. We had the living room curtains open until the sun was deeply set over the Soochow Creek, and the boys ran around the flat way into the night, excited over the brightness – what a difference the lights made! Despite defeat, it was an uplifting experience, and I prayed there could be moments of brightness in the days to come...

Aerial view of the confluence of the Whangpoo River and the Soochow Creek at war’s end
Naval Battleships on the Whangpoo, December 1945
Aerial view of the confluence of the Whangpoo River and the Soochow Creek at war’s end
Victory celebration on the streets of Shanghai